Grayling's Folly is falling down

The real reason to oppose the New College of the Humanities.

The New College of the Humanities should not be opposed because it is private or atheistic. There is nothing inherently wrong with a private institution willing to pay its own way, such as the University of Buckingham. And having noted atheists involved, such as A C Grayling or Richard Dawkins, is not by itself any discredit, even if being associated with this misguided project may discredit them as rational or progressive thinkers.

The New College of the Humanities should be opposed because it is simply a sham.

Careful attention reveals it to be just a branding exercise with purchased celebrity endorsements and a PR-driven website. The College has no degree-giving powers, nor any influence over any syllabus for any of the offered degrees. The degrees that its students will study for are normal University of London degrees, which external students can undertake at a fraction of the proposed £18,000. The College will seek access to University of London facilities, which it will presumably have to pay for at a commercial rate.

So what will the student get for their £18,000? It will hardly be "face time" with the celebrity "professoriate". Almost all of them are attached to foreign universities and have numerous other responsibilities and appointments. Indeed, in respect of the two listed law academics, neither of them are authorities in any of the seven core subjects of a standard law degree. The students will, it seems, have a course on science literacy, though such students would probably be better off going to their local "Skeptics in the Pub" branch and paying a couple of quid each month.

The humanities really deserve better than this.

The New College of the Humanities is an affront to the sort of rational thinking and evidence based approach that is associated with the humanities at their best. The distinction between appearance and reality is a staple of academic philosophy, and so it is disappointing that the eminent academic philosophers associated with this project thought they could get away with what is, in my view, a highly misleading PR exercise.

If there is to be some brave new initiative to protect and cherish the teaching of the humanities in this country then it should not be a glorified crammer for rich students in Bloomsbury with a slick and misleading website.

Thankfully, the initiative is now coming apart under scrutiny. For example, contrary to the college's Twitter account, it appears that it was not "founded by 14 of the world's top academics" and nor will it "provide gifted students with an outstanding education".

Indeed, each of these propositions seems to be false. The 14 named academics have not "founded" anything: they have just lent their names to someone else's initiative; the students will not be in any meaningful way "gifted" but those who (irrationally) choose to pay at least double the fees they would pay elsewhere to study for the same degree with exactly the same syllabus, but with the glamour of an absentee "professoriate"; and there is nothing about the proposed education which really makes it "stand out" at all.

Yesterday, I described the New College of the Humanities as "Grayling's Folly". Already it would appear that Grayling's Folly is falling down.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.